Most recently updated: December 2020
An instrument petting zoo.
That’s how children who have never been exposed to so much as a recorder get their first introduction to the world of music at The People’s Music School. For more than 40 years, The People’s Music School has helped the children of Chicago access and form a relationship with music education, and now they’re being recognized as one of the Make It Better Foundation’s 2019 Philanthropy Award winners.
Founded in 1976 by Dominican immigrant and Juilliard graduate Rita Simo, The People’s Music School started out as a small storefront with a single, donated piano. Now, it has become a full-time operation that offers completely free music education to approximately 700 students every year. All the school asks is that you donate your time — so it is parents who keep the school looking as gorgeous as it does, and this commitment is what keeps the school feeling more like a family than an educational institution.
For around nine hours each week, students receive classes in music theory, group instruction, individual instruction, and performance ensembles. The students are also taught how to translate the musical lessons and they learn real-world skills, such as creativity, empowerment, and giving back to the community.
More than 10,000 students have benefitted from The People’s Music School since its inception; most from underserved areas where music programs are not available in schools. Today, the school serves children at sites in Uptown, Albany Park, Back of the Yards, and the Greater South Side.
The People’s Music School has partnered with everyone from famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Chicago Public Schools and Bottom Line college prep in order to introduce as many students as possible to the world of musical education.
That the school still exists is actually something of a miracle — when current president and artistic director Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa joined the organization in 2014, it was in financial trouble. Thanks to her business savvy, however (Matsuzawa had previously worked with Bain Capital Management), The People’s Music School is now running at a significant financial surplus. The upcoming goal is to reach 1,000 enrolled students by the year 2020.
Until then, however, the school will continue apace, helping students discover a love of music that they might never have recognized otherwise. Parents say that on the South Side, the options for artistic expression are extremely limited, despite the fact that there is strong correlative evidence that shows a positive link between arts and music education and academic success.
“Research shows that intensive music education leads to higher graduation rates, higher salaries, higher rates of voting and volunteering, lower rates of crime, and more,” says Renee Davis, the former director of development for The People’s Music School. “We are not only inspiring young minds to experience the joy of music — we are transforming and empowering lives.” Kemper Florin has since replaced Davis as the new Director of Development. Tom Bracy is the current Executive Director.
By the Numbers 2019:
- 9 hours a week of music instruction
- 90 percent students of color
- 100 percent high school graduation rate
- 100 percent college acceptance rate
While maintaining the previous years’ statistics, the People’s Music School also boasts serving over 850 students from every zip code across Chicago as well as opening a new pilot national expansion program in East Palo Alto, CA.